Frank Buck


Gayne C. Young

He captured some of the planet’s most dangerous game for zoos and circuses around the world, wrote bestselling books, starred in movies, and was as popular in his day as fellow celebrities Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth.

Not bad for a guy who was born in a wagon yard and dropped out of school in the seventh grade.

Frank Buck was born on March 17, 1884, in the Podunk town of Gainesville, Texas. He attended school in nearby Dallas where he enjoyed Geography and not much else. What Buck really enjoyed was life outside of school where he captured and collected birds and small animals. Buck dropped out of school in the seventh grade and soon took work as a cowboy where he helped drive cattle from Texas to Chicago. He quit cow punching once he hit the big city and took a job as a bellhop at the Virginia Hotel. It was there that he met and fell in love with Lillian West, a drama critic who had once been an actress and opera singer. Buck later described her in his biography as, “a small woman, plump, with keenly intelligent eyes, the most beautiful white teeth I have ever seen, and a red, laughing mouth.”


You silver-tongued devil!

The two married in 1901.  

Buck was 17. 

She was 46.

Buck won $3,500 in a poker game in 1911 (a little over $100K in today’s money) and used the cash to travel to Brazil. He left his wife behind, snatched up a lot of exotic birds, and took them to New York to sell for an astronomical profit. From there Buck traveled to Singapore and other Asian locales. He collected animals there then returned to sell them to zoos and circuses stateside.

Another thing he did once back stateside?

Divorce his wife.

Buck ended his marriage to West in 1913 before moving onto and marrying Nina C. Boardman, a Chicago stenographer in 1914. Boardman accompanied Buck on some of his collecting trips and together they put more animals in zoos, private collections, circuses, and sideshows than perhaps anyone before or since. Buck supplied the Dallas Zoo with 500 specimens in 1922 alone.

Buck collected a third wife, Muriel Reilly in 1928, after dumping Boardman in 1927.

Buck’s first book Bring ’Em Back Alive was published in 1930 and was so successful that it was turned into a movie only two years later. Buck followed this success with an additional seven best-selling books and by playing himself in the movies Wild Cargo and Fang and Claw. Buck took his kick-ass lifestyle on the road in the form of “Jungle Camps” in fairs throughout the US and by performing in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Buck returned his focus to animal capture after World War II.  He told The New Yorker of his return, “You dig the same old-fashioned pits and use the same old-fashioned knives and come back with the same old-fashioned tigers.”

Buck estimated that he captured over 500 species of animals in his lifetime and more than 100,000 wild birds. Of these, he reportedly captured 49 elephants, 60 tigers, 63 leopards, 20 hyenas, 52 orangutans, 100 gibbons, 20 tapirs, 60 bears, 90 pythons, 10 king cobras, and 15 crocodiles. Buck was especially proud of his trapping skills and even more so in his care for the animals he captured. He once wrote, “I am proud of the fact that in my whole career of dealing with wild creatures I have never willfully or unnecessarily harmed or injured a single one. I have made it my business to bring them back alive, for I have only feelings of kindness for every creature that breathes on this Earth.”

Buck quit breathing on this Earth on March 25, 1950. He died in Houston from lung cancer at the age of 66. 

Buck’s legacy was revisited in 1982 with the television series Bring ‘Em Back Alive. The shows stared Bruce Boxleitner as Buck, Caddyshack’s Cindy Morgan as a femme fatale, and a whole bunch of animals.

The show sucked.

And was canceled after just one season.

You can learn more about Buck and his legacy at the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville, Texas.

From the FE Films Archive

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